Congress needs to reinvent secularism in the age of nationalism; can Shashi Tharoor provide a way out?

"Congress, peddling 'BJP lite' is like Coke Zero, it will get us zero,” said Shashi Tharoor in an interview with The Times of India.

Tharoor cautioned against the growing temptation among political parties to pursue the soft Hindutva line to counter the BJP and urged the Congress to adopt an uncompromising position on secularism.

Shashi Tharoor. AFP

Shashi Tharoor. AFP

Fine. Opposition parties taking to the saffron line would mean the defeat of secularism. It would also mean closing the doors on the pluralistic ethos of the country. It would perhaps be the beginning of the greatest genetic mutation of a country known for its adaptive, assimilative and tolerant traits. The mutation would make India resemble any Islamic country; the example closest to home would be Pakistan.

It is understood that a Hinduised India would be disastrous, trapped perennially in conflict with a modernising society and a past that has been liberal and largely syncretic in character.

But why did secularism land in such a desperate state in the first place? Unfortunately, secularists, who have been quick to raise the din over the BJP pandering to the religious sentiment of the majority, are yet to put the question to themselves.

Minority-appeasing, majority-othering, diabolical and malicious: That’s how the BJP has successfully managed to paint secularists. While the party has been at it for a long time, there has been no effective counter to it from the latter.
The others, including the Congress, have been largely defensive in their response, as if a covering up guilt. How come? Intelligent people like Tharoor should be able to find an answer to that.

The Congress’s revival depends largely on how well it articulates the concept of secularism in a country that is temperamentally secular. Indeed, it is ironic, given the party's history and the towering stature of its leaders.

But now, something seriously wrong. It can no more go to the people and ask for votes simply by claiming it is secular. It has to find a new approach and break the big concept down in order to allow the masses to consume it easily. Since it has assumed a sentimental overtone, it has to go in for nuanced treatment.

The BJP has, rather smartly, pegged its attack on secularism to nationalism, national security and thus captured the public imagination. The former, after all, is a lesser concern when the larger issue of the nation is involved. Even when it talks of Hindutva, it comes with that nationalist overtone. The Congress has to reformulate its approach to secularism keeping this framework in mind. Is it easy? Certainly not.

Tharoor advocates aggressive secularism. It is good to the ears but how does one go about it? If the party persists with the present approach, it would mean fiercely defending the minorities, particularly Muslims. The Congress’s approach to the Muslims so far has been full of ambiguity and hypocrisy.

Electoral politics is now past the phase where it can find a vote bank in stoking the sense of insecurity in the community. The more leaders like Digvijaya Singh defend even those involved in crimes against the nation the more they are likely to alienate the majority and even a section of the Muslims.

There is another critical question. Take the minorities out of the whole equation; how do you explain your secularism to the Hindus? If there’s an explanation we haven't heard it so far.

The Congress’s secularism has too often been indifferent to or dismissive of the Hindus. The consequences are visible now. If the party is serious, it has to first explain secularism to itself and develop a sense of clarity on the subject. Only after that it can try to reach out to the masses.

It will need people like Tharoor to think harder on the subject. Of course, soft Hindutva will, as he says, “will get the party zero”. It will make Congress the BJP’s ideological B team.

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Updated Date: Apr 03, 2017 15:35 PM

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